Not a drop to spare

Last Updated : 05 November 2011, 15:42 IST

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Water — Asia’s New Battleground by Brahma Chellaney leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about the importance of this precious, colourless, odourless, life-giving liquid in all future transactions between nations. Indeed, it is no longer a scholarly conjecture that all future wars will probably be fought over water. A look at world history will show that many wars of the last century and this were fought over petroleum and oil reserves.

With the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the world’s power balance has changed drastically. China, with its economic clout, is increasingly calling the shots, especially in Asia. There is no doubt that the water crises facing this region are reaching a crescendo during this present period. It is in this background that Chellaney’s book presents some chilling facts — that China has been working, overtly and covertly, to ensure that it will hold all the aces in a world of looming water shortages.

It is also apparent from Chellaney’s painstaking, no-nonsense and detailed work that China is set to change the very topography of the Tibetan plateau. The Tibetan plateau is where many great rivers of Asia have their origin, including the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. Chellaney’s book reveals that China has put into place a number of programmes that will have far-reaching consequences in the Asian region. The recent building of the mammoth Three-Gorges Dam in the area is just one example.

According to Chellaney, there are a number of small, medium, and large coffer dams built all over the Tibet area by the Chinese that already have a direct consequence on Indian river systems. There was a flood situation in Arunachal Pradesh in 2005, which was a direct result of a breach in an upstream dam in Tibet. China admitted the dam burst when it said that “a natural dam” had given way, a claim received sceptically by those downstream, especially the 35,000 rendered homeless. Chinese release of excess water from its Sutlej basin hydro works, without warning, caused flash floods in Himachal Pradesh in 2000, 2001 and 2005, a fact confirmed by ISRO satellite imagery.

What is extremely troubling when one reads all these revelations is that so far India has only put up a meek and token resistance in world platforms. There are some historical issues that Chellaney brings out in his book that bear pointing out — (1) that Nehru, in his 1954 Panchsheel treaty with Beijing, implicitly accepted China’s annexation of Tibet without even securing “or even seeking Beijing’s recognition of the then-existing Indo-Tibetan border.” Nehru did not even imagine that his action would have an impact on India’s water interests in the future, rues Chellaney. The writer does point out that water shortages were not known at that point in time in most parts of India, and water availability was taken for granted. (He also draws attention to the fact that Nehru took water availability for granted when he generously gave away 80.52 per cent of the Indus System waters to Pakistan in the 1950s through a treaty of indefinite duration. (2) That water as a potentially aggravating bilateral factor was not even in Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s calculations “...when he surrendered the remaining Indian leverage on Tibet...officially completing India’s sacrifice of its traditional buffer” in his declaration with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in 2003, recognising that the Tibetan Autonomous Region was part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China. Chellaney says, “If Tibet’s annexation was the single most adverse event to affect Indian security in the 20th century, India’s formal recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet constitutes the single biggest security blunder with lasting consequences for Indian territorial and river-water interests.”

In his fascinatingly clear (and deeply disturbing) arguments throughout the book, Chellaney makes it amply clear that China has been seeking to hive off extensive parts of traditional Tibet, shrink the Tibetan population, and “sinicize” the entire Tibetan plateau. He further argues that China is sure to confront India with the 2003 document, and resurrect its claim to Arunachal Pradesh on the basis of its forfeiture of its remaining leverage with Tibet.

According to Chellaney, China has been working all these years to solidify its claims on Tibet not just for political reasons — the region is the third place in the world, apart from the two polar caps, where there is still a permanent ice cover or permafrost, which in turn feeds all the major rivers originating from there, like the Ganga, Brahmaputra, and their tributaries. These directly affect India. China has already worked on trapping other rivers like the Mekong and the Irrawady, which has already impacted the river environments in

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Chellaney points out that a strong China is effectively silencing any murmurs of protests from these nations because of its sheer clout in the area.

Chellaney sounds several alerts throughout his book on China as the source of river flows to the largest number of countries, ranging from India and Vietnam to Russia and Kazakhstan. The most visible and frightening revelation (for India) is on China’s alleged plans of diverting the Brahmaputra’s flow.

The book, backed by meticulous research, makes a final and urgent plea, in order to pre-empt conflicts and resolve existing disputes: that Asian nations must involve themselves in institution building efforts to manage transnational freshwater resources on a sustainable basis. “In the absence of such institutionalisation,” he warns, “peace would be the first casualty in Asia, and water would become a treacherous new battleground.”

This dense volume of facts, figures, maps and arguments makes for a very serious and disturbing read. I am sure Chellaney also hopes that his book’s warnings are heeded by decision-makers rather than remaining a valuable publication confined to a few distinguished bookshelves.

Water — Asia’s new battleground
Brahma Chellaney
Harper Collins
2011, pp 386

Published 05 November 2011, 15:42 IST

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